Chirac battles to focus G8 summit on Africa's plight

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The Independent Online

The meeting of the world's biggest developed countries in Evian from tomorrow was supposed to mark a historic opening of the "first" world to developing nations. But much of the time will now be absorbed by the first world's own economic difficulties and papering over its political squabbles.

Over the next three days, the G8 countries will open out on the shore of Lake Geneva to become the G20, embracing countries as disparate as China, Egypt, South Africa and Brazil.

The manouevering among the "rich" eight may well distract from the summit's stated aim to give more attention to the needs of developing countries, and especially Africa.

President Jacques Chirac's decision, as summit host, to invite 12 representative countries from the third world, was partly intended to make a political point. Just as France disapproves of a single American-driven view of what is good for the democratic world, M. Chirac also wished to demonstrate that the world could not just be run by - and for - the rich eight.

The invitation to five African countries - Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa - follows from the initiative taken at last year's G8 summit at Kananaskis, in Canada. Many of the fine promises made last year - a better trade deal for Africa, more debt cancellation and a campaign against Aids - have not been fully kept.

The US has upstaged Europe this time by promising a multibillon-dollar anti-Aids package for Africa. The French government has called for a moratorium on all export subsidies by rich countries on agricultural sales to Africa. (This is a significant shift of the traditional French position, but the US has challenged Europe to end all farm subsidies on exports to the developing world.)

The accident of the calendar which put this year's summit in France, under M. Chirac's presidency, threw up an obvious danger. The diplomatic cold war between Washington and Paris would lead one side or another - most likely American - to seek confrontation in Evian, over anything from Africa to trade to the EU farm policy.

The softer tone from Washington in recent days suggests that the US government has recognised that - given the slow world economy - this would be a dangerous strategy. Whether the US would like M. Chirac to claim a great success in Evian is another question.

But much of the attention of the world's markets, and media, will be focused on the political and economic body language of the US (the Group of One). Will President George Bush signal an end to hostilities with France? Will the US give some sort of signal that it is prepared to work with its rich allies to revive the world economy and - a subject officially not on the agenda - to arrest the plunge of the dollar?

The summit's final communique, largely written in advance as usual, will emphasise words such as "confidence", "co-operation" and "unity". In the words of one senior American official, the most important task of the Evian summit is not to have any visible disagreements between the eight countries who comprise 50 per cent of the world's GDP.

Any overt quarrels - over the new Doha world trade round, over the dollar, over transatlantic trade disputes, over agriculture, over global warming - could have serious consequences on the world economy. The US seems to be recovering; Britain is resisting. But Japan is in a long deflation, Germany is in recession and France is tottering on the brink.

Economic analysts say that a family quarrel in Evian could help tip the world economy into a deflationary cycle.

Such an outcome would be in no one's interest and especially not in the interest of Mr Bush. There is a painful Bush- clan memory of the consequences of the economic downturn which followed the first Gulf War on the re-election chances of George Bush senior.

But is the US - so allergic to multilateral diplomacy - also ready to ditch multilateral economics? No government will say so publicly but many European officials fear privately that the dollar's decline - 30 per cent against the Euro in six months - is a straw bonfire to warm up the US economy for the presidential election in 18 months time. The markets will be looking for any sign, however feeble, from the summit that Washington is sincerely unhappy with a low dollar.

Timetable

Sunday G8 Heads of Delegation arrive by helicopter. Other heads of delegation arrive by boat from Lausanne. Welcome followed by working lunch and dinner.

Monday Working session followed by working lunch. Press conference by French President, Jacques Chirac. Working dinner.

Tuesday One-hour working session. Summit then closes. Heads of delegation leave. Press conference by M. Chirac.

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